Thursday, March 28, 2013

The first myth of college

There's a mythology to college, created over centuries of higher education. Alas, these are now myths, though in the past there was some truth to them.
Myth #1: “You need good grades to get into college.”


“I hate math. I failed this course four times in school, why do I have to take it again?”

--typical complaint from my students.


    Decades ago, college or university admission was not a certain thing, and high school graduates would eagerly await the mail, hoping to get an acceptance letter. Applying to college was nearly pointless unless the prospective student took “college preparatory” courses in high school—what educational institution would accept a student who had not already troubled to acquire the basic skills of higher learning? A student with good grades, and having the appropriate coursework in high school, still could not be certain of acceptance, and would almost certainly also need high scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Even all these put together might not be enough to assure acceptance, and students wishing to improve their chances of acceptance still further would engage in extracurricular activities like charity, volunteer, and honor society work.

     Those days are long gone, because policies have changed. Now, “open admission” policies are common at most public and many private institutions. Online, accredited graduate schools like Capella require nothing from their applicants besides a check that doesn’t bounce. Grades and transcripts mean nothing in an era where grade inflation and widespread cheating scandals in high schools barely make the local news. Around half of students enter college unprepared on some level, requiring a semester, a year, or more of “developmental” courses before they can even take actual college courses. The amount of remedial coursework required by many students means the majority of incoming students won’t receive a four year degree within six years of admission. Standardized tests are no longer relevant to admission, instead serving to determine where in the remedial course sequence a student should go. Extracurricular activities are completely irrelevant.


    “Fill in this application form. Check this box if you’re a degree seeking student so that you can qualify for student loans.”

--the primary means of getting into many institutions of higher learning.


     Decades ago, having a child accepted into college was a point of pride for a family, since it served as validation of that child’s hard work. Today, getting into a college is about as significant an achievement as purchasing a refrigerator, and about as much effort. If the check clears, you’re in…and ultimately that’s all you need to get into college or buy a refrigerator. A far more accurate myth is “Any college will take your money, no matter what.” This hardly sounds better than those easy credit loan schemes by businesses of questionable integrity that are often advertised on TV, and for good reason, as we’ll see later.

     A child raised on this myth will, without good grades, enter early adulthood believing college is beyond his reach. This makes him particularly vulnerable when a recruiter tells him the truth: his grades count for nothing, a college will take him no matter how poorly he did in school. And so another student enters the college system, thinking he’s getting a “lucky break” by getting to go to college…when the reality is his poor grades in school were an indicator that academia is a poor choice for him, and that he’ll probably not learn anything that will help him pay off the loans that are paying for his classes.

      It’s little different than all the smiling customers P.T. Barnum fooled when he put up a beautiful sign, “This way to the Great Egress!” Ignorant of what an egress was, his customers cheerfully followed the sign to see the great thing. After exiting the circus, they were in no position to do anything about being tricked. If they really wanted to complain, they’d have to pay an entrance fee to get back in the tent. A few did so, to Barnum’s delight. Students likewise are completely helpless, years later, when the loans start coming due and there is no way to escape the loans. A few students, unable to pay their loans, take out more loans to go back to college. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” to steal another line from Barnum, and this myth is the first to creating many of the suckers in the higher education system.
     Every year I see swarms of students burying themselves in debt, learning nothing. It's no surprise that studies show even graduates often learn nothing, but realize that even the students who fail still have to pay exorbitant bills, often for the remainder of their lives.